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Alaska Department of Fish and Game

Parasites and Diseases

A Field Guide


caribou leg bones
Sections of leg bones from caribou, with gradually depleted fat from left to right.

What causes starvation-malnutrition?
  • Starvation occurs when an animal is not able to get the amount of energy or nutrients from food that it needs.
  • There may not be enough food available, or the animal may not be able to reach or get nutrients from food because of environmental factors (deep snow or a hard crust) or physical problems (injury, disease, parasites, poor teeth).

When does starvation-malnutrition occur?
  • Starvation and malnutrition can affect any wildlife species and usually affects young, old, weak, or sick animals.
  • It usually occurs in winter.

What are the signs of starvation-malnutrition?
  • Animals may be weak with not much body fat.
  • The skin may appear loose with a dull, rough hair coat.
  • Animals may have humped or sagging backs, sunken eyes, and small tucked up bellies.
  • The bones of the shoulders, ribs, back and hind end may stick out.
  • When butchering, you may notice a lack of fat under the skin, around the heart, kidneys and other organs, and in the bone marrow (e.g., thigh bone).
  • The marrow of a starving animal may be a red or yellow, jelly-like liquid. Bone marrow from a healthy animal is usually solid, white and waxy.
  • Muscles and organs such as the liver may have shrivelled.
  • The intestines and stomach may not contain much food or may be full of dry, poor quality food.

Can I eat the meat?
  • Meat from infected animals is suitable for human consumption.
  • Starvation and malnutrition may decrease the quality of the meat.

Samples to collect
  • Any long leg bone (e.g., femur) or jaw bone.
  • The easiest way to tell if an animal has died of starvation is to measure the amount of fat in the marrow of the femur.
  • To report an occurrence or to submit a sample for identification/analysis, contact the DWC Wildlife Disease Surveillance reporting hotline 907-328-8354, send an email to or visit your local ADF&G office.
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